Beyond wasted bran discarded during flour refinement, bread is second only to potatoes as the most wasted food item in the UK – some 24 million slices of bread are binned daily. This not only has social and economic impacts but also substantial environmental ones. The FAO has painted a picture: if food waste were a country, it would be the third-highest emitter of green gas.
Understanding the Bread Industry: A Call to Re-evaluate Our Food Choices
In contemplating the vast scope of our bread and food production industry, it becomes evident that a fundamental shift in our approach to bread-making and consumption is urgently needed. As both consumers and bakers, we must recognise and value the most crucial part of the grain: the bran.
A kernel of wheat consists of three parts, two of which can be considered by-products of the white flour milling process: the bran (the outer covering of the kernel, rich in fibre) and the germ (the innermost part of the kernel, high in fat). During this roller-milling process, which discards both the germ and the bran, we throw away 20% or more of the grain depending on the milling extraction rate. Of this milled-off bran, only 10% is repurposed to supplement dietary fibre in cereals and baked goods. The rest could be sold off as animal feed, but millers often dispose of the bran as waste due to high transport costs. There is a profound irony in the current industry practice of expending energy to discard bran, arguably the most nutritious part of the grain. This approach seems almost insane. Many farmers and millers, who are integral to our food system, find themselves in a paradox where they are forced to dispose of bran – often at a cost or with minimal return and another local organic mill commendably utilises bran as food for maggots, yet the financial compensation is minimal.
When stepping back to view this system, I am reminded of a poignant phrase from the film “Forrest Gump”: “Stupid is as stupid does.” This saying resonates profoundly with our current situation. If extraterrestrial beings were to observe our practices, they might well be baffled at our shortsightedness and quick-fix mentality, especially regarding our basic food. The majority of bread available, categorised under the NOVA food score, is deemed ultra-processed. This pervasive consumption of such products drives us towards a dual crisis: environmental unsustainability and a deterioration in our physical and mental health. The neglect of our gut microbiome, which plays a crucial role in producing metabolites essential for brain and gut function, is alarming.
The statistics and insights provided below aim to illuminate the scale and impact of the bread industry. I hope that this knowledge will serve as a wake-up call, inspiring a re-evaluation of our approach to bread. By understanding its pivotal role, we can work towards saving both ourselves and our planet.
It is estimated that up to 30% of the food we produce is lost or wasted every year – in the US alone, that equates to 32.6 million cars worth of greenhouse gas emissions (GHGE). Growing and producing food, transporting and storing it for purchase, cooking food, and baking bread uses land, energy, fuel and water, emitting greenhouse gases and contributing to climate change. At the landfill, as food rots, it generates methane, an even more potent greenhouse gas.
According to estimates provided in the UNEP Food Waste Index Report 2021, if we worked together to cut down on food waste, we could reduce 8–10% of GHGE caused by humans.
Fueling the diabetes epidemic.
Without the fibrous bran, the grain is easier to chew. Due to its fat content, the germ is stripped out to extend its shelf life, which becomes rancid with oxidation. What remains is the soft, carbohydrate-rich, easy-to-digest endosperm. According to Harvard’s School of Public Health, when we refine wheat, we toss away usable food and virtually all the fibre, but we also leave other good stuff on the table – half of the B vitamins and 90 per cent of the vitamin E. This wasteful practice occurs against the backdrop of a global epidemic of lifestyle-related diseases. These ailments often stem from a dearth in our diet – a lack of fibre and polyphenols, essential for gut microbiome health. Bran, abundant in prebiotics, hemicellulose, cellulose, and arabinoxylan, among other nutrients, is a cost-effective, nutritious, and sustainable option for enhancing gut microbial health. Yet, astonishingly, it is being discarded.
The resulting highly processed flour is much lower in nutritional quality (requiring fortification). But other components, like phytochemicals, are lost for good. Phytochemicals are designed to help plants grow and protect them from pathogens, competitors and predators. As a result, when we ingest these plants, these bioactive compounds behave as antioxidants designed to scavenge free radicals – the highly reactive molecules produced from the everyday metabolism of our cells and a natural by-product of the toxic inputs we receive. These phytochemicals, as antioxidants, help to prevent further damage to our cells and protect us from a state of inflammation and disease. If you’d like to read more on phytochemicals, you can view our slides on phytochemicals here.
Recent research looking at the potential of wheat bran fibre for biocomposite production (a filler in starch-based films) from the flour refinement process shows that using bran in this way could lower the overall environmental impact, including global warming and fossil fuel depletion. Here, bran fibre would replace polypropylene, eliminating the carbon dioxide emissions that come from bran degradation.
Personally, I would prefer we did not remove it at all, and we simply use it in the bread that we bake, eat and share.